The most rewarding part of my role as an educator is witnessing the joy experienced by a child when they are at play. Play is the time for creating our own ideas, making new discoveries, finding interest in our environment and sharing enjoyment with those around us. Too often in my time working with children I have heard the phrase uttered ‘they’re just playing’. The use of the word just suggests that the act of play is unimportant; a time filler, a way of occupying children until we can get down to the real graft of learning.
‘Play is the work of a child’ – Maria Montessori
The value of play has been researched extensively and much is known among educationalists about the benefits and importance of play for childhood development. But do we as carers and guardians really see the true value in allowing our children to just play?
As an Early Years teacher for much of my career, my understanding of play has been informed by observing children. Play is what children do when they follow their interests and ideas by making their own choices.
‘Play is the greatest form of research’ – Albert Einstein.
Growing up as one of five, there were times when my brother, sisters and I were banished into the back garden, allowing my busy mother some peace and quiet or ‘a piece of quiet’, as my youngest sister understood it at the time. It was during these free hours that our imaginations ran wild; we made mud pies, discovered ‘rare and precious’ stones and created stories with such intricate plot lines that they continued for days on end. In the safety of our back garden, we were explorers and scientists, making such discoveries that are only possible when up to your ankles in mud.
I certainly agree with the widely shared idea that boredom is a catalyst for creativity. During those endless weeks of summer holiday (and dare I say it, long before the invention of the iPad), boredom led to my siblings and I finding and creating a suitably interesting activity to occupy us for an unspecified period of time. We drew upon shared creativity and a sense of curiosity to develop our play. We exercised our imaginations rather than being led into a planned and controlled activity which an adult had promised us would be fun.
The social benefits of play are clear. For play to be successful among a group of children, rules need to be formed, boundaries agreed and, more often than not, disputes resolved without adult intervention. Through quality play, social skills are developed which lead to successful interactions and relationships within the classroom and into later life.
So how can we create the best play opportunities for our children today?
Freedom to play is a necessity, but it can be difficult to balance unsupervised play with safety and security. In order to protect our little ones, it is necessary to know where they are at all times and be ready to intervene when needed. However, children can be over-supervised and over-stimulated. Freedom to play for this generation of children could be described as an afternoon or weekend clear of classes, clubs or tutoring which could be spent instead at an activity of their own choosing.
Opportunities for play in our Reception classroom are created by the layout of the environment. The space is designed to encourage free play. If play is informed by the interests and choices of the child, then the child needs to decide what they would like to access without the restrictions of asking permission. Throughout our Reception classroom, furniture and resources are organised in a way which promotes independent play with carefully labelled display cabinets and drawers full of resources which cater for all interests. The children can safely and freely access their own ‘tools for play’. Our teachers simply facilitate play.
Opportunities for play within the whole school curriculum are endless, although are less frequently observed in classrooms of older age groups. Understandably, certain skills and knowledge cannot be gained simply by osmosis but must be specifically taught which can leave little room in the timetable for play. However, play is essential to deep and meaningful learning across many areas of the school curriculum: scientific discovery, mathematical problem solving, musical composition and artistic exploration to name but a few. Through our creative approach to the curriculum, we aim to ensure opportunities for play are available to all children, not just those in the early years.
My teachers and I believe in the value of play and so, #playmatters and #learningthroughplay are some of our most frequently used tags on social media, and will continue to be as we document the everyday events of our growing school.